Monday, 17 July 2017

Memories of the North West Highlands

In early 1979, my Dad suggested to me that during the summer we should visit North West Scotland. Specifically he wanted to see the Inverpolly region of Sutherland and Wester Ross, but also wanted to re-visit the Central Highland region of Speyside, which he had previously experienced in the mid-1950’s. During that earlier visit, he also spent time on the west coast at Loch Carron.

We were both birdwatchers, though my interest had waned somewhat during my mid-teens, and by 1979 it was only just being re-kindled. My Dad’s inspiration came from, as usual, a book entitled “Where to watch Birds in Britain and Ireland” by John Gooders, and also I suppose from his memories of his previous visit.

On that occasion he had travelled to Aviemore by train (he worked on the railways so it was his best option), spent a few days there, and then continued to Kyle of Lochalsh, before taking to his bicycle and staying in a guesthouse at Loch Carron. At Kyle of Lochalsh he took the short ferry journey to Kyleakin and spent a few hours on Skye, but didn’t venture more than a mile or so on the island.

It’s difficult to imagine now what it must have been like for him in the 1950’s. Communications were almost non-existent by modern day standards, no mobile phones, no Internet and no email. Very few homes would have had their own telephone, and public telephones would have been very sparse, especially in such a remote region. Many homes would not have owned a television, and would rely on radio for their news and entertainment.

Tourism in Scotland would have been very much in its infancy, and there would have been very few guesthouses, and probably no holiday homes. At that time, locals were locals, and not wealthy outsiders. They were very religious people who would have lived in their villages and cottages for generations, and not simply people who had retired there or were retreating from the ‘rat race’.

Many people probably could not afford to, and probably had no desire to travel very far. Distances were vast by British standards, with sometimes 10 miles or more between houses outside of the towns and with very few people owning cars, they would have had very little contact with people from the outside World. Combined with a limited experience of television, they would know very little about life outside the Highlands.

The railways had of course brought a glimpse of the 20th Century to these remote places, and towns such as Aviemore and Kyle of Lochalsh would have undoubtedly prospered and grown as a result, but away from these oases, life would have continued very much as it had done for generations.

To my Dad, it must have seemed like he was travelling almost to the edge of civilisation, a journey into a great wilderness. There were no television documentaries to show him what to expect, and no glossy magazines with trip reports and full spread photos. His knowledge of the region would have been based almost entirely on what he read in books and had seen on maps, and he would probably have not seen more than a handful of black and white photographs of the area.

At that time, most working class people did not travel very far, so by travelling from Liverpool to the Highlands of Scotland he was probably considered an oddity, both by those he was leaving behind and by the people he was visiting. In the mid 1950’s, most Liverpudlians considered a week across the water in New Brighton to be an extravagant holiday.

So why did he do it? Why did he go? Well I guess he was always an oddity. In the years immediately following his discharge from the Royal Navy at the end of the Second World War, he spent many weekends walking and cycling in the mountains of North Wales, spurred on by his books. His favourite area was the Clwydian Mountains around Mold, and he would often take the ferry from Liverpool to Birkenhead, and then cycle into Wales.

At the same time, his interest in bird watching grew, inspired by local naturalist Eric Hardy, who wrote a weekly wildlife column in the Liverpool newspaper, the Daily Post, and by the books and paintings of Peter Scott, whom he considered a kindred spirit, due to them both spending time in the Mediterranean during the War on Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB’s). He became a regular visitor to the Wirral coast, at Heswall, Thurstaston, Hoylake and of course Hilbre.

Finally of course, he had the opportunity to travel. He worked on the railways before the War, and continued his career with them after it. He was used to travelling by train, and his journey to Aviemore and beyond would have been free to an employee of the railways. The journey was longer, but travelling by train and bicycle, the cost would have been little more than a couple of weekends away in Wales.

He told me tales of his visit, of locals peering from behind curtains on Sunday morning, amazed that he was venturing out on the day of prayer, and of the birds that he saw. Golden Eagle, Ptarmigan, Greenshank and Crested Tits in places with evocative sounding names such as Rothiemurchus Forest and the Lhairig Ghru. I still find it amazing that back in the mid 1950’s, a working class scouse lad in his mid twenties, from Solon Street, Edge Hill was watching Ptarmigan, alone, below the mighty cliffs of Beinn MacDui, Britain’s second highest Mountain, 10 miles from the nearest house, while most of his mates were buying “Kiss Me Quick” hats in New Brighton, Southport or Blackpool.

Our goal in 1979 was to see summer plumaged divers on their breeding lochs, and in Speyside we hoped to pick up a few speciality species such as Crested Tit.

I can’t remember exactly what my reaction was when he suggested visiting Wester Ross and Sutherland, but I agreed almost immediately. At the time I was not so obsessed with bird watching that I was desperate to see any particular species of bird, I just saw what I saw and didn’t worry about the rest. However, divers were different. I was probably inspired by the Arthur Ramson book “Great Northern!”, which I had read during my school days, and which tells the tale of a group of youngsters who travel by boat to the North West Coast of Scotland, discover the nest of a Great Northern Diver, and set about protecting it from egg collectors. Divers have a primitive, almost prehistoric feel about them, and have always been amongst my favourite birds.

Finally, I had an interest in mountain walking, having previously walked in the Lake District with my Dad. Even so, at 17 I was approaching a time in my life when most people are more interested in the opposite sex and socialising, rather than spending a week away with their Dad, especially to such a remote area, so I guess I was something of an oddity myself.

We decided to go for six days in July 1979. We chose July, because at the time I was working in a factory, and was committed to taking the last two weeks in July as holiday. Based on my Dad’s memories of the place, we were expecting to rough it a bit and didn’t really know what to expect. Therefore for the first time, my Mum was not going to come with us, which partly explains the decision to go for just six days.

The planning was meticulous, and no less so was the recording of the event when we arrived, even down to the details of each meal! The decision to stay at Ullapool in Sutherland was easy, because it is the only sizeable town anywhere near Inverpolly, with a population of around 2000. Also, because of the length of the journey (450 miles) we decided to break the journey both ways by stopping overnight at Callander, in the Trossachs. Speyside is about halfway between Ullapool and Callander, so it allowed us to spend a day there on the way back. We chose the Riverside Guesthouse in Ullapool and Edina Guesthouse in Callander.

For weeks we studied maps and books, determining the best places to visit and the best ways to get there. At the time I kept a notebook of places we visited and birds that we saw, and so in this notebook, I wrote down each stage of the route to Ullapool in advance, with predicted mileages. I also left space to write down actual mileages and comments such as time taken and any unexpected detours due to road works etc.

As far as birds were concerned, we had virtually no information. There was no bird information service, no Internet to search for help, no birding magazines carrying trip reports and there had still been no wildlife programmes which covered the area. Nobody we knew had ever been to the place, and most probably didn’t want to go. Just about the only book that had anything useful was “Where to watch Birds in Britain and Ireland”, written 10 years earlier. Even that book had only half a page on Sutherland and a little more on Speyside, and it gave no specific locations, just vague references to “Inverpolly”.

But this was all part of the excitement. We felt like pioneers. In the 25 years or so since my Dad’s visit, the Highlands had certainly become more accessible due to more people owning cars and people’s greater expectations of how they could spend their leisure time, but superstores and much of modern life had not yet reached the Highlands and things carried on very much as they had. People still lived on crofts, and farmed their own little patch of land, and some of them even spoke their own language. You could still drive for 50 miles on a single-track road and see just a handful of cars and even less houses. It still felt very remote and almost primitive.

The journey to Ullapool

So on Sunday 22nd July 1979, at precisely 9:25am, we waved goodbye to my Mum, and prepared to conquer the Highlands in my Dad’s Datsun Cherry!

The first leg of the journey, 230 miles, was to Callander, and was fairly uneventful. We reached the town at 2:30pm, an impressive five hours after leaving home. After our evening meal, we decided to see what we could of the Trossachs and headed for Loch Venacher and Ben A’an. It was at the Loch that I saw my first ever Common Sandpiper, and we walked towards the summit of Ben A’an, until the light began to fade, and we headed back. My notebook tells that on our return to Callander at 9:50pm, we headed for the nearest pub, where we downed two pints of Younger’s at 38p a pint.

The following morning, with real anticipation, we set out for the Highlands proper. Our route took us through some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, across Rannoch Moor with its sundew and Bog Asphodel, through Glen Coe to Fort William, and then along the Great Glen to Loch Ness. At Drumnadrochit, we left Loch Ness and headed for Cannich and the start of Glen Affrich.

Glen Affrich was one of those places that my Dad desperately wanted to see, because he had read that it was one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland. My memories are of a steeply sided valley, with superb scenery, scattered Scots Pines and Birch trees, with lots of bearded Lichen. It was here that I saw my first ever Hooded Crows.

We reached Ullapool just before teatime. It was completely cloudy, raining, cold and windy. I was in room 14 and my Dad upstairs in room 10. In the evening we paid a brief visit to Strath Kanaird, in damp misty conditions, with the highlight being my first ever Common Gulls.

Inverpolly

The following day, Tuesday 24th July 1979, was better. Although it was still mainly cloudy with occasional rain, it was mainly dry, with some sunshine and the wind had dropped. Our route took us north from Ullapool, past Loch an Ais, to Loch Assynt and finally to Loch Inver. We returned along the same route, having not yet plucked up the courage to take the single-track coast road back from Loch Inver!

Our first major stop was at Loch an Ais, where we found, unexpectedly, a small visitor centre at the foot of a cliff-walk nature reserve called Knockan Cliffs. The views from here were simply stunning, with the impressive Stac Pollaidh visible through the valley between Cul Beag and Cul Mor, with Loch an Ais in the foreground.

It was a place I was to return to on many occasions in the following years, but for now we contented ourselves with a brief look inside the visitor centre. Before doing so however, we viewed the Loch from the roadside, and there, on the water in front of us was a diver. It was a fair way out, and at this stage, our diver identification skills were not so good, and our optics were even worse.

Amazingly we were armed with only one pair of cheap binoculars and my Dad’s “monocular” which he had brought back as a souvenir from the War. It would be another four years before I invested in my first telescope.

So we were unable to confirm the birds identity, but it was clearly a diver of some description, and we strongly suspected Red-throated. We had achieved at least part of our goal within an hour of leaving our guesthouse on day one.

To appreciate our excitement at this discovery, you have to realise how difficult we had thought it would be to see divers. This was a remote area, which we had very little knowledge about. We had expected to have to walk miles across moorland to remote lochs in order to see these birds. It was a complete surprise to us that you could see them from the roadside.

On entering the visitor centre at Knockan Cliffs, we were greeted by an elderly man, who was obviously English. He had retired to the area some years earlier, and now manned the visitor centre. We asked him about divers, and he told us that Red-throated were most likely on Loch an Ais, with Loch Assynt the best bet for Black-throated. He also told us that in the spring he regularly saw summer plumage Great Northern Divers from his home at Achiltibuie, over looking the Summer Isles. So incredible did this last statement seem, that I’m not sure I believed him at the time, but a few years later I was to see them with my own eyes.

However, despite the attractions of Knockan Cliffs, for now we were keen to press on to our next main stop, Loch Assynt. A large water body, surrounded by the impressive cliffs of Quinag and Beinn Uidhe, the focal point of the loch is dramatic Ardvrech Castle, built on a small piece of land that juts out into the water. Back in the 17th Centaury, at the time of the Civil War, Montrose, the Captain General of the Kings armies in Scotland fled to this castle, where he thought he had friends, only to be handed over to the parliamentarians, who later executed him. My Dad knew this tale, and told me of it as we approached the castle, under the mighty cliffs of Glas Bheinn, and it all added to the incredible atmosphere of the place.

At Loch Assynt we also examined the rocks, because we knew that we were walking upon Lewisian Gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the World. Our interests were not confined to birds and wildlife. We collected several small examples of the rock, and brought one or two home with us for Dad to use in his rock garden.

From the banks of this dramatic loch, we saw two more divers, which this time we considered to be Black-throated, but again they were quite distant and beyond the range of our limited optics. Although the views so far had not been great, it was by now obvious that long hikes across the moors would probably not now be necessary, and that eventually we would get a good view of a diver. We didn’t have long to wait!

On reaching Loch Inver, we had a brief but fruitless look over the sea, before parking at the side of Loch Culag, next to a school, to study a map. Immediately we saw a diver on the loch, and this was much closer than the previous sightings. Unfortunately though, the bird disappeared behind a headland. Excitedly, we left the car, and walked a short distance along the bank of the loch, when suddenly there it was. Not more than 50 yards in front of us – a full summer plumage Black-throated Diver. The bird seemed unconcerned by our presence, and we watched it in awe for 15 minutes, before returning to the car and re-tracing our route back towards Ullapool.

However we were not finished yet, and just after passing Loch an Ais, we took the minor road to the foot of Stac Pollaidh. Over the years, this was to become one of our favourite mountains. When we saw Stac Pollaidh, we knew we had truly arrived in Inverpolly. Again we had a knowledge of the rocks, because we knew that Stac Pollaidh was so bizarrely shaped because it is made from Torridon sandstone, a much softer rock than Gneiss. It seemed to my Dad like a small version of the mighty Liathach in Torridon, which he had seen on his earlier visit, but whose majesty I was not to see until the following year.

On the way back from Stac Pollaidh, we stopped off and made a short walk along the lower slopes of Cul Beag, where we saw a Golden Plover. It allowed us to approach quite closely, even though it was clearly agitated, and this we considered to be a sign of breeding.

On returning to our guesthouse, we ate a hearty meal of Chicken Soup, Pork steaks, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, pineapple and carrots, with ice cream and coffee as dessert.

In the evening we visited Lael forest, just south of Ullapool, where amongst the impressive trees (which included Wellingtonias) we saw a Roe Deer. We ended the day at Corrieshalloch Gorge.

Wester Ross

By the following day, the 25th July, the weather had improved still further. There was some heavy rain towards the end of the day, but on the whole it was quite a sunny day and quite mild.

Our second full day was a 150 mile journey south from Ullapool into Wester Ross. We would take in Gruinard Bay, Loch Ewe, Gairloch, Loch Maree and Beinn Eighe, and so taken were we with this area, that it was here that we returned most often in later years.

Fifteen miles south of Ullapool, after you have passed Loch Broom and Corrieshalloch Gorge, there is a road to the left, the A832. Within a mile or two of taking this road we stopped to admire the breathtaking view at the head of Loch Broom, but we didn’t stop long, so keen were we to press on.

The A832 turns sharp right after a few miles, and gradually we began to see ever more impressive views of the mighty red mountain, An Teallach. Over the years this was to become one of our favourite mountains in the area, and we took many a photograph.

At Gruinard Bay I saw my first Eiders, mainly females, but also a few males in eclipse plumage. It was here that we got our first sight of Gruinard Island, which at the time still had signs all around it, warning people not to land, because in years gone by it had been used to test anthrax.

A few miles later, and we had reached Gairloch. This was to become one of our favourite locations in years to come. We were to see lots of divers here, and once, spectacularly, hundreds of Gannets, diving close inshore. However today we had to be content with a single Red-throated Diver, but it was our best view so far of the species, so we were more than happy.

The highlight of the day came when we eventually reached Loch Maree. We had caught glimpses of this magnificent loch a few miles before reaching Gairloch, but we had to drive another 10 miles or so beyond Gairloch before we were to see the full splendour of the loch. A good 15 miles long and in places nearly three miles wide, with three large, forested islands of over half a mile in length, and a host of smaller islands, and a spectacular backdrop of Letterewe Forest, which includes the mighty mountain Slioch, this is the jewel in the crown of Wester Ross. Little wonder that Great Northern Divers chose here to breed back in the early 1970’s, and here it was that we stumbled across a sight that before we set out would have been unbelievable to us. Whilst trying to find a good place to take a photograph, we inadvertently disturbed a pair of Black-throated Divers in full summer dress from close to the bank, with two downy chicks. Though clearly not delighted to see us, they seemed not unduly disturbed, and swam away at a leisurely pace to a safe distance, before proceeding to dive for fish, which the adults fed to the young.



In total we saw at least six summer plumage adult Black-throated Divers on Loch Maree that day, all from the roadside or from recognised parking places. This was beyond our wildest dreams when we had left home just four days earlier.

We ended our day by taking the Glas Leitire nature trail near the head of Loch Maree, on the lower slopes of Beinn Eighe. The views here were spectacular, but it had been a long day, and cloud was approaching, so we didn’t complete the trail and turned back at about the halfway mark.

We returned to our guesthouse and enjoyed an evening meal of minestrone soup followed by Lamb and roast potatoes (with mint sauce), and for desert we had ice cream followed by a coffee.

Knockan Cliffs

The following day was to be our last in the North West. The day dawned dull and wet, and provided me with one of my abiding memories of the holiday, standing in the doorway of the guesthouse, looking out on the rain and the mist on the hillside opposite. Ever since that moment, even though I’m always disappointed with rain, I have at least learnt to appreciate it for it’s own beauty. However it wasn’t long before it cleared up, and we were on the road again, having elected to revisit Inverpolly, and see again many of the same places we had enjoyed two days earlier. We saw another Red-throated Diver, and on Loch an Ais, much to the amazement of the custodian of Knockan Cliffs, we saw two more Black-throated Divers.

This time we decided to walk the nature trail at Knockan Cliffs, and spent a lot of time looking at the flowers, and even studying the rocks. Amongst the flowers, we identified Mountain Avens, now mainly over though there were still a few flowers, the spectacular Yellow Saxifrage in full flower, Butterwort and Holly Fern. The rocks included Torridonian red sandstone, Limestone, Lewisian Gneiss and something I’m still not sure about, but which my notebook describes as “Pipe” rock. At the “summit” of Knockan Cliffs, the Cromalt Hills roll away into the distance, where even today you could walk alone in the mist, in a mire of peat bogs, and not meet another person, not cross a road and not come to a house for 20 miles or more. Looking towards Inverpolly, Stac Pollaidh stands alone, impressively between the much mightier mountains of Cul Mor and Cul Beag, whilst down below divers call eerily on Loch an Ais. Our imagination went back to Montrose, fleeing from his enemies across this very ground, to reach the “safety” of Ardvrech Castle on the shores of Loch Assynt, only to be “turned in” by people he once called friends.

We concluded our visit to Inverpolly after tea, by climbing a headland just north of Ullapool, near Rhue. Here we saw Dwarf Willow, Bog Myrtle, Bog Asphodel, Erica Tetralix and 25 “Orchids”. The sun set over Loch Kanaird and the Summer Isles, and we returned to our hotel, well satisfied, and prepared to leave Ullapool the following morning.

Speyside

We left Ullapool quickly on the morning of Friday 27th July 1979. Our haste was not because we had any great desire to leave behind the North West, but rather in anticipation of what awaited us in the East. We were heading for the Cairngorms, Speyside. The mountains are not as spectacular as in the North West, and there are no great seascapes, but they are much higher, reaching over 4,000 feet in places, and the area is vast, with no sign of human habitation for mile after mile after mile. Also, the weather is more continental than the damp West coast, being drier and sunnier in summer, and colder in winter. There were many species here, which were on the very edge of their range, and some were left overs from the last ice age, clinging on in tundra like conditions on the summits of our highest mountains. At the time of our visit, their future looked secure, and nobody had heard of Global Warming.

Our first stop was at the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten. Compared to the North West, it now seemed like we were back in civilisation. Here was a hide, with telescopes directed onto an Osprey nest, which even non-birders could come to see, and the hide was awash with information about the birds of the area. Looking through a telescope, we saw an Osprey on the nest, and later a second bird flew in and sat on a tree a short distance away. On the shore of Loch Garten, we met a Dutch girl, who amused us when she told us that the Osprey “chickens have flown”.

The Lairig Ghru is an impressive valley between two of Britains mightiest mountains, Ben MacDui, the second highest mountain in Britain, and Cairn Toul, itself well over 4,000 feet. A footpath runs through the valley, but it is 10 miles or more from the nearest road to the start of the Lairig Ghru. In later years I was to walk this area, and camp in the Lairig Ghru itself, under the cliffs of Cairn Toul, but for now we contented ourselves with a stroll of about two miles from the start of the footpath at Loch an Eilean. Loch an Eilean, that most atmospheric of all Lochs, surrounded by pine trees, and in the middle, a ruined castle on an island, where Ospreys once nested. As we walked, my Dad told me of the Grey Man of Ben McDui, a creature of myth, who followed walkers over the mountain.

It was hot and sunny, and we found it quite easy walking country, and after leaving the dense pine forest of the Loch, we found ourselves walking through the ancient Caledonian pine forest of Rothiemurchus. This was an area of mile after mile of scattered Scots Pines, which was home to Crossbills, Crested Tits and Capercaille. We saw a party of Crested Tits in a lone pine tree, and later a single Crossbill, though I didn’t get much of view of the bird, because we were sharing binoculars, and Dad had them at the time we saw the bird. It flew as he passed them over to me, but I was happy enough with the identification. This was just a brief taster for me of Speyside, and I was to return many times in the next ten years, and was no stranger to the summits themselves, though I never saw the Grey Man.

However, we still had a long drive back to Callander, and we were an hour late arriving at our guesthouse. The landlady kindly allowed us to have our meal late. We had a brief walk around the town, and watched in wonder as hundreds of Swifts screamed overhead, and then had an early night, only to be kept awake for hours, by, of all things, a bible class! We left Callander at 9:30am on 28th July, and arrived home at 2:35pm precisely.

And so our brief but groundbreaking tour of the Highlands came to an end. We had covered 1282 miles and used 29 gallons of petrol for a total cost of £32.86, at £1.13 per gallon (£0.25 per litre). Dinner, Bed and Breakfast at the Riverside for two of us for four nights came to £78.20, and at Edina, £24.50 for two nights. In total, including my share of the petrol and guesthouses, I spent £78.65 ½ . It would be wrong to look on this as a birding holiday. Yes we saw many great birds, and they were the reason for the visit, but there was so much more. We appreciated all wildlife, the rocks we were walking on, the scenery and the history of the place. It was a great adventure, and though we returned many times in the following years and saw a lot more birds and flowers and added many more memories, it was never quite the same as the first time.

3 comments:

  1. So well written. Your Dad must have felt very blessed in being able to enjoy and share his interests with his son. Special times wonderful memories Xxx

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  2. Hi Colin This trip must have been a year or so before our trip around the whole o f the NE North and NW coast of Scotland with Mike Brown,John Warren and my mum, a really brilliant report Doug

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Doug, yes it was just a couple of years before I went with you on what was a different but equally good trip.

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